Merry Christmas from Tanzania!
It’s very late on Christmas Day here in Mwanza. (Actually, it's past midnight now, so it's technically Boxing Day. Happy Boxing Day!) We’ve been to church, opened presents, taken naps, sent emails, had dinner with our Maryknoll community, all while our friends and families back in the States were just waking up and starting their day. It’s been strange to be here, so far away from home, both geographically and culturally. But Katie and I have found that it hasn’t been as hard as we expected. It’s strange to be having Christmas on a warm, sunny day, but I’ve done that before (Mississippi represent-sent!). It’s strange to not see many of the familiar signs of Christmas: Christmas trees, reindeer, snowmen, etc. However, Christmas is about more than those symbols, of course. It’s about friends and family and the celebration of Christ’s birth. And we have found these things here.
We also found Leatherface Santa. More on that below.
Last Friday, we headed up to spend the weekend with our fellow missioners Liz and Sr. Marion. On the way, we made a long-overdue stop to visit with John Sweya and his family, friends we met on our 2006 trip to Tanzania. The Sweyas saw us for just one week 6 years ago- not exactly what I would think would create a strong bond- but we were touched by how excited they were to see us. We had lunch, walked around their property, and spent a few hours sharing about our lives over the last 6 years.
The craziest thing was that when we visited, their daughter was just 9 years old, and adorable and precocious little girl. And she’s now a well-spoken, intelligent 15-year old high school student that wants to study medicine and teach at a university. Crazy. Anyway, during the holidays, to reconnect with such earnest and welcoming friends helps take the edge of the “strangeness’ of Christmas in another culture. John and I even got to recreate a picture from our 2006 TZ trip to commemorate our friendship.
John and I, 2006
John and I, 2012
Next it was on to Musoma for our visit with Liz and Marion, who had a fully decked-out Christmas tree which also added to the feeling that it really was Christmas. A lot of the trip was uneventful in a very enjoyable way: baking cookies, snacking, watching TV, cracking jokes, playing games- the simple little pleasures that make spending time with friends enjoyable. However, we had a few special events.
The week of Christmas is known for having some important birthdays. Most notable of course is Jesus’s birthday, but MY birthday falls in there as well. And for my thirty-sixth birthday, we spent the morning with from HIV+ children of Lisa’s Pride, the support group run by Marion and Liz. We had the pleasure of accompanying the kids as they each picked out a special Christmas outfit. I was with a group of 7 boys between the ages of 4 and 10.No input from adults; the kids get to choose whatever they want. Each child is given a budget of 25,000 Tanzanian shillings, equivalent to about $17 USD. It was a fun day, watching the little guys shop for their own pants, shoes and shirts (with some help from Liz and I), but it was also a sobering reminder of the reality of these kids’ lives as well as the blessings we have in ours. These kids (and their caregivers, who also receive a small amount of money) were so excited to be given 25,000 tsh, which to them is a great amount. Later in the same day, Katie and I found some Christmas cards and a few picture frames we liked and without thinking spent 20,000 tsh to buy the items; our lives may be “hard” by our American standards, but our lives are blessed compared to the difficulties and challenges that face your average Tanzanian, much more so for families dealing with HIV infection.
At the end of the day, we all shared a meal and I was pleased to see there was a birthday cake in my honor! SCORE.
Alright. Leatherface Santa. I know you’ve all been waiting, so here’s the deal: Liz, Marion, Katie and I were sitting around at home playing a board game, when suddenly we hear bells ringing and singing coming down the street. Suddenly Liz jumps up and says “They’re coming here!” and she runs outside to put up the dogs. By the time I got outside, she had the gates open and this is what I see flowing in through the gates: a crowd of jumping, singing people and…Leatherface Santa.
Now, I want to point out that this was a church group out celebrating Christmas, and the man who was Santa was very nice and spoke good English so we could chat a minute. But you can’t tell me it doesn’t look like the Christmas Chainsaw Massacre and that this man killed Santa and is wearing his face as a mask.
Katie REALLY doesn’t like people in masks, so of course I made sure to make this picture happen.
Anyway, they said a few words, stayed a minute, then headed off down the road to bring cheer (and maybe a small amount of terror) to other people. As strange as it was, it was really fun and enjoyable to see something that is so familiar to us (Santa) show up regardless of the shape it took. It helped drive home the fact that it is indeed Christmas.
So I hope you have a wonderful Christmas Day. Remember the blessing we have and remember that the day is much more than presents*, but rather a celebration of the One who has give us the greatest gift of all. I’ll leave you with a video of a Tanzanian Sleigh Ride.
* OK, one thing about presents. I received many wonderful gifts this year, but I want to give a shout-out to Katie because she got me a DRUM, which is a very self-sacrificing thing for her to do because I will play the hell out of a drum 24/7.